Hong Lei, a photographer born in 1960, describes his practice as roaming ‘within 5,000 years of civilization, dreaming a sad dream so that I can escape the turmoil of reality. I hereby proclaim that I am terrified of globalization and abhor it.’ With two photographs in ‘Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China’, an exhibition organized by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips, Hong Lei is representative of many artists in this show: fraught with anxiety about an immediate past marked by both idealism and brutal oppression and about a near future that promises chaos, prosperity and displacement.
‘Between Past and Future’, presenting 139 works by some 60 artists and split between the Asia Society and the International Center of Photography, was divided into four thematic groupings: ‘History and Memory’, ‘People and Place’, ‘Performing the Self’ and ‘Reimagining the Body’. Screened as part of this last category, 922 Rice Corns (2000), Yang Zhenzhong’s video, documented a feeding competition between a hen and a rooster. An male voice-over would count every time the rooster ate a grain, and a female voice did the same time each time the hen pecked. After eight minutes the rooster was declared the winner; it was immediately rewarded with the remaining feed and allowed to peck at the hen if she got pushy. Such is the new entrepreneurial spirit of competition in China.
Many photos in this section documented performances in which the human body is used as a disturbing metaphor for the upheavals that have punctuated Chinese life in recent decades. Some took place in Beijing’s East Village, an impoverished enclave where artists work and find affordable housing. In Twelve Square Metres (1994), a performance whose title refers to the cramped and fetid public toilet in the neighbourhood where he lives, the body artist Zhang Huan covered himself in honey and allowed his naked body to be covered by flies while spending an hour in the rank public space in an act of abjection.
‘People and Place’ addressed the emergence of China’s new metropolitan culture. Cui Xiuwen’s video Ladies’ Room (2000) was a case in point, featuring a hidden camera in a night-club loo where women go to freshen up after paid sexual encounters. The young women are seen putting their clothes back on, reapplying make-up, counting money and gossiping. A portion of the dialogue is translated, and we overhear one young woman tell how she was cursed by her mother and thrown out of the family home in disgrace. Without much education and with few employment options she vainly hopes to find a husband in a place where men expect nothing more than to pay for sex.
In ‘Performing the Self’, ostensibly concerned with ‘new conceptions of selfhood and personal identity’ in China today, Lin Tianmiao’s breathtaking Braiding (1998) looked like a ghostly visitation. Viewing it from the front, all that one sees is a white screen hanging from the ceiling with a faintly reproduced photograph of the artist’s shorn head. As you walk behind the scrim, the visage immediately dematerializes into a spectacularly intricate network of interwoven threads that grows more complex as each string binds with others until they form a massive braid piled behind the canvas. Like many women in China who work as seamstresses and embroiderers, Lin Tianmio knows her craft (she trained as a textile artist), and one cannot help but read her work as a comment on the simultaneous primacy and cultural anonymity of so-called ‘woman’s work’. Weaving together the personal with the greater, gender-based social fabric offers yet another level of meaning: lurking in the background is the now banned Chinese tradition of foot-binding, a custom of aestheticized mutilation that ensures female subservience in the private realm.
Elsewhere, in ‘History and Memory’, examining the contemporary legacy and residual effects of the Cultural Revolution – ‘a period of traumatic upheaval many artists experienced in their childhood’, according to the show’s curators – the performance artist Song Dong could be seen in Breathing Part 2 (1996). This was a discreet but politically charged action in which the artist lay face down in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square for nearly an hour one frosty New Year’s Day, his condensing breath gradually forming a thin, frozen puddle on the pavement’s surface. The act was preserved as a colour transparency in a light-box, with an audio recording of Dong’s breathing audible in the background.
But surprisingly it wasn’t Chairman Mao, the Gang of Four or any recent historical moment that I found most fascinating about this large and sprawling survey. Melancholic in mood, delicate in spirit, it was Hong Lei’s Autumn in the Forbidden City: East and West Veranda (1997) that most haunted me. The photographs of two dead and decomposing birds, wrapped in coloured beads that suggested imperial jewels, evoked the loss of China’s royal grandeur, the regal traditions of centuries past and the fragility of its uncertain future.